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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

NY Jets #67 - Part 4

The other day I was reading a profile of Bryan Cranston, who referred to the character he plays on Breaking Bad as "the role that undoubtably will be the first line of my obituary." After years of solidly working in small and larger projects, he has now become one of the most vital actors in an age when people like Walter White are a fascination. As a superpower who slowly destroys everything valuable around him, Walter reminds us of something. But no matter what he does from here, it's likely that Cranston's future work will always be measured against Heisenberg, Walter's alter ego, the one who knocks.

All of us will have a first line to our obituary. Considering what that means for most of us, Cranston is obviously lucky. For some of us, the first line will be bad, wincingly bad. Martin Roche, who attempted to write rather subjectively and disjointedly about an underachieving football franchise, died today after a short battle with liver cancer. No, I'm not sick. Not that I know of. But whatever I imagined my life would be has constantly adjusted to the simple tolls of time. I was going to write my first novel by the time I was 30, my first published novel when I was 40. Now I try to take solace from knowing that Louis Kahn still didn't have a sense of his artistic vision until he was well past 50. But what will I do when I get to that point, and my grand work of supposed genius is still not done?

But what if your moment has already come and gone, leaving you no choice as to what you'd like that first line to be? What if your claim to obituary fame will be "Buttfumble?" What if that thing is really beyond your control? What if you are Everett McIver #67? Only Everett McIver can answer that question, and my guess is that he'd answer it favorably - I am well, I have a life, and I don't have to answer to anyone, and I applaud that. But popular culture doesn't care about people as actual human beings, so it's likely that McIver will be known for "Scissorgate."

It may be that he doesn't mind that. As many people who were witnesses to what happened at the Dallas Cowboys' training facility on July 29, 1998 say, McIver did nothing to provoke what eventually happened to him. The entire story is vividly retold in a 2008 article in The Guardian about the Dallas Cowboys of the 90's. To whit: Cowboy players were receiving complimentary haircuts, McIver sat down into the chair when his turn came up, and even as the job was being done, teammate and clinically insane wide receiver Michael Irvin entered and demanded, on the basis of seniority, that McIver immediately give up his seat and let Irvin get his cut instead. The two argued, eventually coming to blows, and Irvin stabbed Everett McIver in the neck with a pair of scissors, a laceration that required seventeen stitches. Rather than allow Irvin to face the legal consequences of the assault, the Cowboys apparently offered six-figure hush money to McIver, which he took. 

Everett McIver vs. Bruce Smith -
Let's see you try this.
If you do an image search of Everett McIver, you will often find Michael Irvin. Some of us are simply destined to play no role of distinction in this life, and yet some others must play a supporting character in another man's Hall of Fame story. Yet McIver has a success story of his own in that he was an entirely undrafted free agent when he first signed with the Jets, his first professional team, and managed to keep a starting role through much of his career. At 6'5" and well over 300 lbs., I remember McIver as this enormous oak tree standing at the guard position, a vast abutment making his jersey number seem smaller than everyone else's. He began his career in #74, but then moved to #67 in 1995, his final year with the Jets. He found greater success with Miami, and spent two seasons with Dallas, playing one year quite regularly beyond Scissorgate.

But dig a little deeper still, and McIver comes across as a guy who continued to bounce back from challenges both big and small. The simple truth is that the very worst thing that could happen to a person happened to him in 1991, when his infant daughter died during surgery on her heart. Deadspin put McIver in their top 100 Worst only for being unable to block Bruce Smith in 1994 as a rookie, which is ridiculous. But then what the hell would he care? I would suggest that McIver is probably the kind of person to look at life - and maybe even the promise of whatever his first line will be - with a fair measure of clarity and perspective that we might all envy.

***

As we discovered a few weeks ago, Howard Glenn was playing in place of Bob Mischak #67 on the Titans in 1960 during the weeks that Glenn was gravely injured and then died. Mischak went on to have an AFL All-Star career that ended in 1965, after playing for both the Titans and the Raiders. But Mischak earned his earliest fame while playing for Army in one of those moments that become immortalized.

Against heavily favored Duke in 1953, Army was about to seal a 14-13 upset, when suddenly Duke appeared poised for a score. Red Smith waxed rhapsodically about what happened next because a Duke player also named Red Smith took a reverse downfield, with seemingly no one to stop him. In his biography of Vince Lombardi, David Maraniss also talks about this moment too, since Lombardi was at the time on the Army coaching staff. Smith was moving toward the goal line, when Bob Mischak came from behind with incredible speed, caught up with him, and stopped Smith from scoring. He saved the game.

Maraniss says that what Mischak did was pretty extraordinary; he managed to help the team redeem the season: "When Bob Mischak made that unlikely play, what (Head Coach) Blaik called 'a marvelous display of heart and pursuit,' Army's football team regained its soul. Not just Lombardi, but all the coaches, and even the stoic colonel (Red Blaik), cried in the locker room after the game..." The play itself entered into Army lore, apparently even becoming part of West Point's lessons in leadership.

It's difficult to comprehend what Mischak's play meant to people at the time. In the years beforehand, the West Point team had seen players go on to multiple wars, and the endeavor of football itself had taken on the quality of historical events as large as the deeds of Patton, Eisenhower and Macarthur. These were moments of great skill, lionized to mythology. It was just football, but it wasn't.

The title of Maraniss' biography of Lombardi is When Pride Still Mattered, one of the very best sports books I've ever read. The title itself is a test of the modern aesthetic. Can you actually say it without laughing? But that's the point. Players played for pride and were rewarded for playing only for that. Lombardi is often seen as the representative of that tradition, its last lion, dying just before he had a chance to see it wither into nothing. Now, pride as a motivation for courage is often honored like the memory of Lombardi himself, yet so far from the reality of contemporary American endeavors that it seems like a Saturday morning cartoon version of a way of life. As a pro, Mischak played for a team that couldn't even afford to pay its players on time, but he would always have the memory of playing for Army, stopping Duke's Red Smith, and inspiring Red Smith of the Herald-Tribune. He was the essence of pride for its own sake.

If you consider the modern quandary of paying college players to play - which is truly fair in a market sense - and imagine the ripple of consequences that it will then have on college tuition, enrollment, housing and program funding, then suddenly pride - harmless, virtuous pride - seems like the ideal reason to play. But that's not who we are now, and pride may have once mattered, but it ceased to be sufficient a long, long time ago.

Given the lingering legacy of Bob Mischak, and what he represented to a world long gone, I found this odd online tribute to Mischak himself on YouTube to be affecting, even appropriate. I can't quite put the pieces together. It's a kaleidoscope of images, mostly of Mischak looking proud on pro football cards from his days with the Titans and Raiders. In the background, you hear what sounds like the strains of a lone guitarist playing something sentimental and melancholy. But occasionally, a few other images pop up - a corporate photo of a man, whose face is concealed from us, certainly too young to be Mischak. Another is the torso of a large, heavy, anonymous man wearing spandex, holding what looks like a foam legs of a dummy.


What do these have to do with Bob Mischak? Who are these people? Are they all metaphorically Bob Mischaks? Are they other people named Bob Mischak? Do they have the spirit of Bob Mischak? The images then cut back to Mischak himself again, but they study his number, then maybe his chin, never quite getting the full man into focus, almost as if this is some video art piece that, if nothing else, reminds us that whatever mythological power Bob Mischak represented to all the Reds - Blaik, Smith and Smith - today it's nothing more than an unfiltered mess, a random set of images, destined to remain ambiguous forever.

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